Jeff Marek suggested on Sportsnet last night that Montreal general manager Kent Hughes has no intention of shopping key veterans like Joel Edmundson and Sean Monahan as he wants them around to mentor the young players. Both Marek and Elliotte Friedman hinted that the Canadiens will be quiet at the trade deadline.
Can you say smokescreen?
This is the perfect approach from Hughes in regard to the deadline. You are in a much better bargaining position if you don’t reveal any sense of desperation. Come across as being in a position of strength as opposed to appearing to be desperate to sell. Buyers will be less inclined to try to lowball Hughes if he lets on that the club isn’t in selling mode.
Saying that he doesn’t plan on trading veterans at the deadline also keeps those players from fretting, and being the subjects of rampant trade speculation. Why have a half dozen players worried about moving when several of them won’t likely be dealt anyway? Nothing leaves a worse taste in a player’s mouth than discovering that his GM frantically shopped him at the deadline but could find no buyers. Are those players in the future going to give their all for an organization that is telling them they don’t want them? Why remain loyal to someone who isn’t loyal in return? Don’t make it public that you are trying to trade players, and the only ones who will get miffed are the media insiders who report it.
What I found most interesting about Marek’s report is that Hughes mentioned Monahan as a player he doesn’t want to trade. It strongly suggests that Hughes hopes to re-sign Monahan. Otherwise…how would he be helping the youngsters beyond this season given that he will soon be a UFA? Surely, Hughes doesn’t want to keep Monahan so that he can mentor his teammates for just the remaining six weeks after the deadline. If Hughes doesn’t deal Monahan because he wants him in the locker room, then he wants him beyond this season. Either it’s a smokescreen, or he thinks Monahan will be returning to the Canadiens.
One would surmise that Hughes has held discussions with Monahan’s agent and has a fair idea of whether he wants to stay in Montreal. This approach is a strong indication that the Canadiens want to extend Monahan. There’s no use telling the media you want to deal him if you want him to stay. If the rumours are strong that the Habs are shopping Monahan, and they don’t find a trading partner, what are the odds that he would want to sign a deal with the club after the deadline? You indicate both publicly and privately that you want him back if you indeed want him back. You don’t tell Jeff Marek that you want him gone.
Right now, I would say that the odds of Monahan being extended before the deadline are higher than the odds of him being traded. But if Hughes can’t get him signed by March 2 or has no indication from his agent that he will sign before he becomes a UFA, don’t expect him to ignore trade offers.
There are always those that say “trade XXX at the deadline and then re-sign him as a UFA” but do you know how many times in NHL history that has happened? You can count the number of times on your fingers.
If the worst-case scenario plays out where Monahan doesn’t leave at the trade deadline and then departs in free agency, it’s far from catastrophic in terms of asset management. The Canadiens already got a first-round pick for Monahan whether he is dealt or not, so Hughes feels no desperation to move him.
As I have stressed more than once this season, the Canadiens aren’t just starting a rebuild. It has been going on for a few years, and they already have extra picks and two first rounders for the next two drafts as well. There is no desperate need to trade players for more draft picks – the prospect cupboard will be brimming with talent after this draft whether they obtain more picks or not.
Hughes knows this, and what he said to Marek holds a certain amount of truth – the club doesn’t have to be sellers at the deadline. They will listen to offers but none of the more desirable players will be given away. Hughes won’t be trading Edmundson, Anderson and Monahan for mid-round draft picks.
Jeff Gorton rebuilt the Rangers over two drafts with five first-round picks, and then looked to add talent instead of continuing to tank for high draft picks. The strategy worked out pretty well, as the Rangers have been contenders ever since.
I think the Canadiens will be adding players to try to contend for the playoffs next season. One of those “additions” may well be signing Monahan.
He has fit in well with the club, looks to be fully recovered from his hip issues, and showed no indications of being on the decline when he was in the lineup. The Canadiens have promising center prospects in Oliver Kapanen, Riley Kidney and Owen Beck but none of them will be stepping into second or third-line center roles next season, perhaps not even the season after that.
If the plan is to fight for a playoff spot in 2023-24 – and one would suspect that Geoff Molson won’t object to that plan – then one smart way of bolstering that objective is to re-sign a valuable player that won’t cost the team any assets. Being handed a first-round pick to take on an asset in Monahan who ends up playing a top-nine role for your club for a few years is a pretty sweet deal if that’s the end result.
Kirby Dach needs someone on his line who can take key faceoffs if the plan is to keep him at center, and in the short term, Monahan is the best option going forward. The club doesn’t have to trade for him; they just have to sign him.
This trade deadline will reveal to all which direction management will pursue this summer and in 2023-24. If none (or few) of the key veterans are moved, then the Canadiens fully intend on competing for a playoff spot next season.
Fans who want the club to keep collecting draft picks will be outraged, of course. There are some that want the club to tank and rebuild for a decade but that’s not going to happen. The Canadiens have one of the five worst records in the NHL over the past four seasons…the rebuild is essentially over after this draft.
It’s also wise to keep in mind that it’s not where you drafted, it’s who you draft. Look for the Canadiens to get one of the ten best players from the 2023 draft as they’ll likely be picking in the top ten, and their drafting record in recent years has been solid. Add that asset to Suzuki, Dach, Caufield, Mailloux, Guhle and Skafkovsky, and one could argue that the Canadiens between the 2017 and 2023 drafts added seven players who should have been top-ten selections.
That screams “rebuild over” to me, and I’m pretty sure that Gorton and Hughes concur with that conclusion, especially when you consider that the club also has Lane Hutson, Owen Beck, Emil Heineman, Sean Farrell, Joshua Roy, Kapanen, Jakub Dobes, Filip Mesar, Kidney and other promising prospects in the pipeline. Montreal’s U-24 talent runs at least 20 deep, and will only be deeper after the 2023 draft. Come July, it will be time to try to fortify that young talent with key veterans that can help this team contend sooner rather than later.
All of this means that the Canadiens won’t be desperately shopping veterans at the deadline, and that is a good thing. Deal from a position of strength, and hold out for the best offers.
Some argue that the main reason why you trade several veterans at the deadline is to increase your chances of tanking and getting the first overall pick. The main issue with that besides breeding a losing culture is that other poor teams will be getting rid of players at the deadline too, and the odds of the Canadiens ending up any lower than fifth worst are low whether they sell off a few veterans or not.
Which is more important – the young core of the Canadiens winning some games down the stretch and building confidence and togetherness for next season and beyond, or losing a bunch of games so that you can increase your odds of drafting Connor Bedard by a couple of percentage points? I would strongly argue that the former is more important:
In keeping with the “dropping from fifth to ninth” theme in the above tweet, recent draft history has shown that an NHL club is almost better off to be drafting ninth overall than fifth. Certainly, there is no evidence that you are much better off with the fifth pick when you look at these results over a decade of drafting in the 2010s:
Almost 500 more points have been scored by the ninth overall picks in those drafts, and the margin will only get larger with time as Zegras and others outscore their fifth-overall counterparts in the future. It’s not important to “tank” in the final weeks of the season unless you are in a solid position to finish at the very bottom of the standings.
Anaheim, Columbus, San Jose and Chicago will be sellers at the deadline. The moves that Montreal makes won’t equal the Hawks dealing Patrick Kane and Jon Toews in terms of impacting a “tank job”.
The recently-revised lottery odds are heavily in favour of the last-place team ending up with the first pick, as we saw last season when the Canadiens finished last. Is there anyone who believes that if the Canadiens trade Jonathan Drouin, Josh Anderson, Monahan and Edmundson that it will make them appreciably worse than a Chicago team that will be dealing Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and perhaps more?
Montreal would have to go 5-20-2 the rest of the way while Chicago goes 10-15-3 to have any hope of “catching” Chicago. Columbus, San Jose and Anaheim would also have to start winning at a much higher pace to avoid being overtaken by the Canadiens for last place, and it’s simply not going to happen. The Canadiens have little or no hope of finishing in the bottom-three, let alone last overall, so there should be no inclination on Hughes’s part to “blow it up”.
The only way that Montreal might be the worst team by far the rest of the way would be if they dealt their goalies, Nick Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Mike Matheson and David Savard, and that isn’t happening, so Hughes and Gorton are not going to get rid of veterans at a cheap return just so they may be worse down the stretch. Both the math and the ramifications point to such a plan being the wrong one.
The approach to this deadline will be the same as it was last year – trade a few veterans if the return is worthwhile. If Edmonton comes calling and offers Xavier Bourgault and a first for Edmundson, for instance….does anyone believe that he’ll turn it down because the club will be losing a mentor? I don’t expect Edmonton to offer that much but you never know – GMs desperate to make a postseason splash invariably overpay for one or more players every trade deadline, and Hughes will likely get some offers that will be hard to pass on.
I took Marek’s comments with a grain of salt. Hughes won’t be giving players away. Nor will Hughes be turning down good offers. None of the veterans are untouchable, and expect at least two to have new addresses by March 3.
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